Colloquial use gives the impression that the adjective “catholic” designates the Roman Catholic Church as opposed to other church bodies such as the Orthodox or the Lutherans. In the perspective of history, though, using this term to refer to particular denominations is actually a relatively new practice. Moreover, the Orthodox and Old Catholic Churches have never forgone the right to call themselves catholic. Not until the late the seventeenth century did people in the lands of the Augsburg Confession begin to use the words “Lutheran” and “Catholic” as mutually contradictory terms. Till then Lutherans had quite consistently referred to themselves as catholic. Their unwillingness to use the term “Lutheran” about themselves other than in a colloquial sense shows how reluctant they were to appear as somehow sectarian adherents of Martin Luther.

Their concern was, on the contrary, to retain the faith of the Catholic Church. Luther himself maintained that his faith was catholic, and that he confessed the credal article of faith concerning the “Catholic” Church  (WA 8. 96). Melanchton likewise emphasized that “we must all be catholic” (CR 24.399). In the Augsburg Confession of 1530 we also read that the doctrine of the Reformation “does not deviate from that of the Catholic Church (ecclesia catholica) in any article of faith, but only renounces a few misuses, that are new and have erroneously been included against the intention of church law”. When discussing papal innovations, Reformation theologians claimed to hold a doctrinal standpoint that “neither deviates from Holy Scripture nor the Universal Church nor the Roman Church as we know it from the Fathers”. (CA XXI:1)

This understanding of catholicity hails from the definition given by the Church Father Vincent of Lerins: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold THAT WHICH HAS BEEN BELIEVED EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS, AND BY ALL—quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.” (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd edition, p. 84). This definition is based on the assertion that there exists a common tradition of East and West that is binding for the spiritual life of the Church. The term “catholic” (first used by St Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, written between AD 107 and 115) is derived from the Greek word combination kata (according to) + holos (complete). The word thus denotes “what is in accordance with the fulness of faith and order”. Thus “catholic” refers, first of all, to the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church’s life.

The point is therefore not that the Church shall be “universally present” in terms of space, but “complete” in all spiritual respects. In this way the word describes an ideal situation—“what is as it should be”. Consequently, the term “catholic” does not designate a particular denomination, but specificies a quality that should mark all church bodies. In order for it to be called “catholic”, the spiritual life  of a church or ecclesial community must be in accordance with the fulness of faith and order. In the same way as the other qualifying marks of the church—“one”, “holy” and “apostolic—the attribute “catholic” expresses an aspect of the life of the church that cannot be relinquished and politely handed over to become a monopoly of Rome. Everywhere spiritual life, that is, ecclesial life in Christ, must appear as it should be. The real opposite of catholicity, then, is self-chosen, arbitrary religiosity. In the end, every one of us must make the fundamental choice whether I want to be truly catholic or declare myself to be my own supreme spiritual authority.

In this perspective, not only individuals but also churches and religious communities must likewise place themselves under the norm of catholicity and self-critically ask how they transmit the faith in any given situation.


Bishop Roald Nikolai

(translated from Norwegian)